LOOP: I DON’T SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY
dave van patten
Loop were one of the rawest, nastiest British psychedelic bands of the 80s, their sound a splintered mix of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, hypnotic krautrock and the most outre auteurs working in film, literature and beyond. They did one U.S. tour before they broke up in 1990, but now after decades of requests, founder Robert Hampson has reconstituted the band for a return to America. (And put out some deluxe reissues, too.) They play Austin Psych Fest the weekend of May 3 and 4 and at the Church On York on May 7. He speaks now about idiots and music. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Loop only played the US once before this tour—what happened? Did you break into America, or did America break you?
Robert Hampson (guitar/vocals): We only ever came over once. It was hard work. I always remember it being very successful. There was a hell of a lot of interest in what we were doing, and it wouldn’t have been impossible to have come back quite quickly. But when we actually got back to the UK, there were a few things that had sorta gone wrong. I pretty much decided after a few weeks back from the States that enough was enough really, and decided to actually end Loop. Much to the chagrin of the American record companies …
As a fan of so much American music, were you excited to walk the same streets your favorite bands did?
Obviously for me, being such a huge no-wave fan, to finally go and play New York was something else for me—to be on the same stages as Tom Verlaine or Richard Lloyd, even though it was a complete shithole! But it was fun! To finally be in these places after knowing of them for so long was certainly interesting, but I can’t say I’m … not in awe of America. But I’m not in awe of anything, really. I respect where music comes from. Having been to New Orleans or Memphis or places where a lot of my favorite music came from, it was really nice to, I guess, put a face to all these things. Detroit was interesting cuz when we were there, that was when it was really getting very dark and grim. We played a venue where Harry Houdini had done his last trick—he didn’t die in the venue, but that was where he did basically the trick that killed him. I was a complete geek and anywhere we went—I’m still the same now—I always ask, ‘Who’s been here? Who’s played here?’ But in Detroit, the promoter was petrified we were going to go out in Detroit and get killed! ‘Do not go outside!’
Did you go outside anyway?
I think we went bowling, at an alley that was next door. The weirdest thing was I inadvertently walked through the projects in Chicago and I didn’t even notice. I was just ambling on. At the venue, they asked me how I got there, and I said, ‘Well, the bus didn’t arrive so we walked.’ And you could see the color leave her face. She went apeshit: ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ‘No, I just walked through there.’ She was in a cold sweat. ‘Do you realize what you just walked through?’ What saved me is looking completely out of place. If you look like an alien in an alien landscape, you’re doing okay.
Is that related to ‘the only sane response to an insane world is to go insane’?
Something like that!
What was the pathology of Loop? There are bands like the Stooges, who seem so wrapped up in alienation, or bands that really get into paranoia or mania. What psychological state marks the Loop discography? I always felt it was very anxious music.
At times, we all feel alienated in our own world. There was an edge of that in Loop. Everybody thought Loop was psychedelic, and it was to a point, but it was brown acid—the edgier side. Not everything was pretty. It was very introverted, in a way. But I wouldn’t say it was cuz I was an anxious person. It wasn’t autobiographical. It was more just trying to find an edge to something a little bit different. When we came about and first started, it was the time of the much more lighter weight—in England, the scene was very much that jangly guitar, post-Byrdsian, bright-sounding … and we were the antithesis of that. We had a lot more color to us, really, but darker shades.
People talk about the idea of the timeless pop song. Can an anti-pop song be just as timeless? The reviews of your first reunion show mention how Loop songs haven’t dated.
Maybe people have just come to our way of thinking? I’m not gonna say we were years ahead of our time. We were never immensely popular. We were popular, but we weren’t ever gonna break through. It goes back to that edge. It wasn’t quite friendly. I think a lot of people didn’t cotton on to the idea there. Live, it was incredibly visceral. Some people maybe had trouble finding their way in. It’s not that they hated it, but the angle to come in … I don’t know. At the time, we weren’t necessarily making commercial music, so it was understandable the position we were in. Towards the end—and I’ve always said this—Gilded Eternity didn’t fit into anything at that time. This is before even what people consider avant-garde, like Radiohead. It stuck out like a sore thumb. Even Loop fans didn’t quite get it. We alienated a few people in the process. But you have to move forward. I’ve never been one to keep making the same record over and over. So it just took a little while for other people to find out we’d moved forward quite considerably. Now, from my perspective, I still think that it works. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t do it again. I didn’t want to for a very long time, but I came round to the way of thinking—other people had been asking me so long, and I couldn’t find any reason to say no anymore. I’d used all my excuses. So I said OK. I don’t listen to any of my recordings, I never have. But to play those songs again felt valid. And there’s gonna be a hell of a lot of people who never got the chance to see us who are interested in what we’re doing—to experience live what it used to be like. It’s quite different to the records!
Are we past nostalgia now? Do people want everything from any era happening at once on the same stage?
It boils down to the fact that music was a lot better then! Most music now is appalling. We’re spoon-fed this garbage from the TV, these talent-show wannabe types—
Feel free to trash on the internet too.
Quality control has severely suffered. I don’t know when it happened cuz I live outside of this, but obviously I see it. I do live in the real world, but it just bewilders me. With bands re-forming, I can sneer at it too. I can understand why people think it’s not valid. That’s their prerogative. I’m hoping people, certainly in America … it was so rare a chance to see us, and at least they can come get a taste of what it was like. And it has a lot more weight behind it—the sound is so much better, with better technology in venues and whatnot.
You’ve written several times about how your favorite albums capture bands in the process of disintegrating—like Big Star’s 3rd. When you’re into those kinds of troubled albums, does it affect the music you make? And the way your band works? When you are fascinated by dysfunction, does it make you dysfunctional yourself?
It’s possible. When we recorded the last album, I had no consideration that it was any part of being a band disintegrating. It’s more obvious with Forever Changes by Love, or Buffalo Springfield’s Again, which they basically recorded as solo artists. And Big Star, basically Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson. It’s almost a Chilton solo album. There’s bands that maybe should have distintegrated quicker, like the Velvets, cuz they went on and did Loaded, which is awful. From a personal aspect, I can’t liken my experience to that. I didn’t consider us a band falling apart. I didn’t even consider that until we’d come back from the US and my feelings had changed. We were incredibly tired, we’d been touring for almost a year solid, and there were a lot of pressures I was sick and tired of. So I threw up my hands and walked away. With hindsight, we should have just taken six months off. But you can’t see the wood for the trees in that mental state—extreme exhaustion affects your mood, and you have nothing but antipathy to everything. It wasn’t the band falling out or fighting. But it’s possible to think with Gilded Eternity, the seeds of ideas of changing direction that became Main were there—after Loop split. You can see the relationship. But it wasn’t conscious at that time. With certain bands and the way they recorded, that desperation of trying to cling to something made them do something different, and invariably that’s often the band’s best record. Having not been in that situation, I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I know how that feels.
Did the experience of being in Loop change the way you listened to any of your own favorite records? ‘Now I truly know what they meant’?
No—it affected me in other ways. Being more overtly cynical with the business. I was obsessed, and all my friends would say I was obsessed with music from a very early age. I always knew I wanted to be in a band, probably from the age of 8 or 9. And even before then. So actually having the privilege of making something of it was fantastic. I have that feeling now. It’s never left. Unfortunately, the business side of things is the downside, as pretty much any band will tell you. It’s the shit that gets in the way and can be unbelievably awful. As much as you try and avoid it, the avoidance technique of suing managers to get away from direct contact … it doesn’t fucking work at all. It will always affect you. It’s a coping mechanism you develop, to understand that a high percentage of what’s going on around you is bullshit, and to hopefully come through it. But it eats everyone eventually.
What was your first ‘are you for real’ moment with one of those people?
With dealing with idiots? There have been so many. Even way before Loop. I don’t suffer fools gladly. But people might say the same of me. Sometimes you are left bewildered by someone’s absolute stupidity. But I can have those moments in a supermarket.
Are you familiar with a man named Larry David?
Absolutely. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon.
Iggy Pop tells a story about being really into Chicago blues and even playing it, but realizing that there was no point to him just copying that style. But if he took it and mutated it and made it personal to him, then it would work. And that crystallized the Stooges for him. Did you ever have a moment of clarity like that?
For me, it was being in other bands, and never starting my own band from scratch. And always being unsatisfied. These bands would last five minutes, and I never found anything that made me truly find my feet with it. It was that feeling of … when I was with my old partner, Becky, saying, ‘We need to do this ourselves.’ It was like a gumbo of all these different tastes and feelings and colors and sounds, and just trying to make something unique. For us, it all happened incredibly quickly. We were signed after only our third-ever gig. Literally just three shows, and Jeff Barrett from Head [Records] tracked me down—‘I wanna put out a record by you guys.’ And I was ready for it. I didn’t shy away. ‘This is what I’ve always wanted,’ I thought. We could have done the first EP and I would’ve died a happy man right after. But it snowballed and more things were happening. Having that realization of doing it myself was the turning point. Thinking I’m not gonna get what I’m looking for in another band. I have to do it myself.
That’s a big part of DIY—the last resort.
When I decided to do it … the first couple weeks I’d had a few ideas and I had a little Portastudio, so I’d recorded just guitars and rudimentary drums on that. But finding like-minded people was the hardest part. Trying to say what you were looking for, and it’s all very well naming influences—but that’s not necessarily what I wanna do. And trying to explain … that was the trickiest part. But the minute we did start playing some gigs and having the chance to record so quickly, those like-minded people were suddenly in my vicinity. My life changed considerably. Music was so great—from 82 or before then with post-punk, but there was that really incredible scene from 82 or 83 to 89. I don’t see music scenes as interesting as that now. It was so much more eclectic, so many different things going on. Now everything ticks the right boxes, and these scenes become scenes within themselves and don’t break out of cross-pollination. At that time, I didn’t think about it so much, but now I think that will never happen again.
Maybe the ability to endlessly duplicate information—music or movies or whatever—has encouraged people to duplicate information themselves. Maybe there’s less space for revelatory ineptness when someone else has the technique and the overwhelming knowledge to just make themselves into a copy of whatever they are into.
I don’t think … this sounds bad—
People don’t really listen to music properly.
Do they just accumulate it?
Music is not made for your laptop speakers. Seriously, it’s not. Why spend thousands of pounds recording and mastering for it to sound tinny and thin on a bad MP3? People complain that people don’t buy records or CDs, but also people seem to have this idea that they live a life where everything is allowed to be free. This desire, this privilege that everything is available to them free. And having that helps destroy the notion of what makes the hunt … when I was younger, I had to hunt. I had to go find it. And any little tiny bit of information that one of my favorite bands would drop in an interview, you’d be straight out hunting. And now you just tap it in. But then … all I had was the NME and Melody Maker and Sounds. I didn’t have MOJO, Q, all those … just the three inkies. That was it. You could only find stuff by what they were telling you, which was kind of a shame really, but you took what you wanted and left aside what you didn’t. I feel like it was much more about being a fan in those days. There’s a cultural ambivalence now—for most art forms I believe. People have this sense it’s all bestowed on them for free, and it levels everything so nothing appears to be that special anymore. There’s way too much!
Something I notice is a sort of devaluing or undermining of creative work—that making art or music or whatever isn’t as ‘real’ or somehow worthwhile as something supposedly more practical, even though it takes just as much technical skill to make a decent song. It’s not serious, and you shouldn’t be rewarded for it.
The problem is now … well, we could be here all night. But it’s a situation now where something has to completely implode or explode for something to be born again. In society in general, and it could be controversial, but I’m one of these people who think we could do with another world war.
I think there could only ever be one more.
If it wasn’t all-out destruction, I think it’d be the final pointer in making society believe in itself again. The problem now on such a huge scale is this ambivalence to life.
Completely. Something quite catastrophic has to happen. I don’t mean aliens landing. But there’s so much going on in this world and people aren’t paying attention. Climate change, everything else, it’s just this ambivalence to everything in our everyday life, and that goes into what you’re saying about art. People just don’t seem to exist … the people who are lost without an iPhone, and without it you’re not part of society. Or social networks. And that stretches into what you’re saying and what I agree with. I don’t know where it’s gonna stop until something quite serious happens. I’ve no wish to sound like a grumpy old man! I don’t want to sound like that, and I certainly don’t feel like that for the most part. But I don’t think people have a respect for life as much as they used to. And they don’t have that respect for life out of their own vicinity. I don’t think that people think. I’m someone who grew up in the late 60s and 70s and 80s in England, which was pretty grim—and we have one person to thank for that—Margaret Thatcher! What I find strange now is you used to have to work for things. Your grandparents or parents brought you up to work for things. If there’s something you want, you work for it. Now, people just want everything but they’re not prepared to do anything for it. They just take it. This self-serving … I feel myself getting a bit angry! It’s mind-numbing. And what can I do? What can I say? I don’t have children, I’m not married, I don’t have anything to bestow my wisdom upon, if there is any. But this is part of the reason I never wanted children. I don’t see society getting any better! I don’t wanna bring this helpless bundle of flesh into this world and leave it struggling.
There’s an old interview where you say the biggest enemy to the human race is trivia. So how are you liking the world of 2014?
It’s got so bad I try not to think about it! I have to numb myself from the pain. My saddest reaction is that I don’t pay so much attention to it anymore. My own ambivalence. And that makes me sad. I’m now one of these people who throws his hands in the air. I can huff and puff but nothing is ever gonna change cuz people don’t want it to change. They’re happy in their little bubbles. And that makes me sad. Twenty-five or however many years down the line, I still feel the same, but my own ambivalence now is why I don’t get so upset anymore. It’s probably why I’m still alive!
In the Loop songs, there are a lot of ideas about fire or things burning. If you were writing for Loop now, what would be the metaphor that fits best?
It’s the same. If I was creating a band now from scratch with that Loop format in mind, it’d probably be very similar. Technology would change, but the imprint of what I was trying to do is the same. I don’t think as a person I’ve radically changed much. I’m older and I hope I’m a lot wiser, but my outlook is the same—I’m not a pessimist but I’m not an optimist. I like to consider myself a realist. Day-to-day life can get me down, the music business can get me down, but it’s just part of life. And you have to see through that and come out the other side, and as long as you remain intact mentally, you’ve got nothing to complain about, really!
I always liked Loop for being this sort of outside voice, delivering the negativity and confusion that put a little balance against everything-is-fine positivity—the songs were suggesting that there’s something more out there.
There is more out there. That goes hand-in-hand with my influences. It wasn’t always about music. I still am far more a film buff than I am a music fan. That’s my greatest love in life, even more than music. I’m not really a great advocate of explaining myself too much. I like that everyone has different ideas about things. Not just with Loop, but with other music I’ve made too, when people tell me their own personal opinion, it can often be very different to what I was thinking. And I really appreciate that. People see things differently. They’ve taken the time to consider it instead of being so ambivalent. That’s a nice element when that comes back to me. I still am the world’s most reluctant frontman. I couldn’t find another singer. I just wanted to play guitar. But out of desperation … I guess it’s all part of the curve. The vocal element to all these things was deliberately abstract. When people complain they can’t hear the words, well, you’re not really meant to. I like games, puzzles, abstraction—things that aren’t necessarily what they seem.
What would have happened if there wasn’t any desperation? Would Loop sound different if you got everything you wanted?
Musically it wouldn’t have made much difference. Everybody that starts that kind of creative process, to a certain point—I don’t know how long it stays faithful to the original moment, things change and situations change. But I can only hope that it remained intact, although it was an idea that was constantly cross-pollinating and shifting and mutating. But it remained intact, and I would hope that people who even listen to my music outside of Loop will still see there’s a vision to it. Trying to fluff my own ego here! I’ve never made music for commercial reasons—it was blatantly obvious whatever I’ve been involved in musically would never be taken to that realm. I don’t recall having that idea, and I don’t recall wishing it to be any better or any different. I’m pretty stoic in that respect.
Is there freedom in knowing you’re never gonna make it?
It’s hard to say cuz I’ve never wanted it. It’s harder for the people that wanna be big stars, that wanna be celebrities and want this and want that. But what they don’t understand is they don’t have the right make-up to do these things. They must be far more crestfallen than I could possibly be. I can’t really ever lay my hand on my heart and complain cuz I’m only here by what I’ve done by my own recognizance. Everything I do is cuz I wanna do that; I’ve been allowed that and that’s a great privilege—and I’ve been allowed to do it for a long time, which is a greater privilege. I don’t consider what could be cuz my brain doesn’t work in that way. I’m not gonna lie—of course there’s times you could do with more money! And one of my biggest bugbears is if people just steal my music completely. We’re reissuing the Loop back catalog and remastering and within 24 hours of coming out, it’s on BitTorrent everywhere. What can you do? You feel like King Canute. Nothing you can do. But you can’t help shaking your fist going, ‘Could you just buy the fucking thing?’ It looks better, it sounds better, it is better—just buy it! It’s not gonna break the bank. And hopefully you’ll feel far more enriched than listening to something that couldn’t sound much different than rustling a little paper on a tiny little speaker. The power is just lost.
LOOP ON SAT., MAY 3, AND SUN., MAY 4, AT THE AUSTIN PSYCH FEST AT THE CARSON CREEK RANCH, 9507 SHERMAN RD., AUSTIN. MORE INFO AT AUSTINPSYCHFEST.COM. AND ON WED., MAY 7, AT THE CHURCH ON YORK, 4904 YORK BLVD., HIGHLAND PARK. 8 PM / $16 / ALL AGES. THECHURCHONYORK.COM. LOOP’S COMPLETE ALBUM REISSUES ARE AVAILABLE NOW FROM REACTOR. VISIT LOOP AT SOUNDHEADS.ORG.